Muhammad is the creator of the Koran. That
is what well-known Iranian reformer Abdolkarim Soroush says in his
book The Expansion of the Prophetic Experience that will be
published early next year. With this view, Soroush goes further than
some of the most radical Muslim reformers. In an interview with
Zemzem, he gives a foretaste of his book.
Abdolkarim Soroush is regarded as the intellectual leader of the
Iranian reform movement. Initially, he was a supporter of Khomeini.
He held several official positions in the young Islamic republic,
among which that of Khomeini’s adviser on cultural and educational
reform. But when the spiritual leader soon turned out to be a
tyrant, Soroush withdrew in disappointment. Since the early 90s, he
is part of a group of ‘republican’ intellectuals who started out
discussing the concept of an ‘Islamic democracy’ but gradually moved
away from the entire idea of an Islamic state.
Soroush’s basic argument is simple: all human understanding of
religion is historical and fallible. With this idea he undermines
the Iranian theocracy, because if all human understanding of
religion is fallible, no-one can claim to apply the shari’a in God’s
name, not even the Iranian clergy.
In The Expansion of the Prophetic Experience Soroush makes clear
that his view on the fallibility of religious knowledge to a certain
degree also applies to the Koran. With thinkers such as Nasr Hamid
Abu Zayd and Mohammed Arkoun, Soroush belongs to a small group of
radical reformers who advocate a historical approach to the Koran.
In his new book, however, he goes one step further than many of his
radical colleagues. He claims that the Koran is not only the product
of the historical circumstances in which it emerged, but also of the
mind of the Prophet Mohammed with all his human limitations. This
idea, says Soroush, is not an innovation, as several medieval
thinkers already hinted at it.
How can we make sense of something like ‘revelation’ in our
disenchanted modern world?
Revelation is ‘inspiration’. It is the same experience as that of
poets and mystics, although prophets are on a higher level. In our
modern age we can understand revelation by using the metaphor of
poetry. As one Muslim philosopher has put it: revelation is higher
poetry. Poetry is a means of knowledge that works differently from
science or philosophy. The poet feels that he is informed by a
source external to him; that he receives something. And poetry, just
like revelation, is a talent: A poet can open new horizons for
people; he can make them view the world in a different way.
The Koran, in your view, should be understood as a product of its
time. Does this also imply that the person of the Prophet played an
active and even constituent role in the production of the text?
According to the traditional account, the Prophet was only an
instrument; he merely conveyed a message passed to him by Jibril. In
my view, however, the Prophet played a pivotal role in the
production of the Koran.
The metaphor of poetry helps me to explain this. Just like a poet,
the Prophet feels that he is captured by an external force. But in
fact – or better: at the same time - the Prophet himself is
everything: the creator and the producer. The question whether the
inspiration comes from outside or from inside is really not
relevant, because at the level of revelation there is no difference
between outside and inside. The inspiration comes from the Self of
the Prophet. The Self of every individual is divine, but the Prophet
differs from other people in that he has become aware of its
divinity. He has actualized its potential. His Self has become one
with God. Now don’t get me wrong at this point: This spiritual union
with God does not mean that the Prophet has become God. It is a
union that is limited and tailored to his size. It is human size,
not God’s size. The mystical poet Jalaluddin Rumi describes this
paradox with the words: ‘Through the Prophet’s union with God, the
ocean is poured into a jar.’
But the Prophet is also the creator of the revelation in another
way. What he receives from God is the content of the revelation.
This content, however, cannot be offered to the people as such,
because it is beyond their understanding and even beyond words. It
is formless and the activity of the person of the Prophet is to form
the formless, so as to make it accessible. Like a poet again, the
Prophet transmits the inspiration in the language he knows, the
styles he masters and the images and knowledge he possesses.
But his personality also plays an important role in shaping the
text. His personal history: his father, his mother, his childhood.
And even his moods. If you read the Koran you feel that the Prophet
is sometimes jubilant and highly eloquent while at other times he is
bored and quite ordinary in the way he expresses himself. All those
things have left their imprint on the text of the Koran. That is the
purely human side of revelation.
So the Koran has a human side. Does this mean that the Koran is
In the traditional view, the revelation is infallible. But nowadays
there are more and more interpreters who think that the revelation
is infallible only in purely religious matters such as the
attributes of God, life after death and the rules for worship. They
accept that the revelation may be wrong in matters that relate to
the material world and human society. What the Koran says about
historical events, other religious traditions and all kinds of
practical earthly matters does not necessarily have to be true. Such
interpreters often argue that this kind of errors in the Koran do
not harm prophethood because the Prophet ‘descended’ to the level of
knowledge of the people of his time and spoke to them in the
‘language of the time’. I have a different view. I do not think the
Prophet spoke the ‘language of his time’ while knowing better
himself. He actually believed the things he said. It was his own
language and his own knowledge and I don’t think that he knew more
than the people around him about the earth, the universe and the
genetics of human beings. He did not possess the knowledge we have
today. And that does not harm his prophethood because he was a
prophet and not a scientist or a historian.
You refer to medieval philosophers and mystics such as Rumi. To
what extent do your views on the Koran find their origin in the
Many of my views are rooted in medieval Islamic thought. The idea
that prophethood is something very general that can be found in
different degrees in all people is common in both Shi’i Islam and
mysticism. The great Shi’i theologian sheikh al-Mufid does not call
the Shi’i imams prophets, but he attributes to them all the
qualities possessed by prophets. Also mystics are generally
convinced that their experiences are the same as those of the
prophets. And the notion of the Koran as a potentially fallible
human product is implicit in the Mu’tazilite doctrine of the created
Koran. Medieval thinkers often did not express such ideas in a clear
or systematic manner but rather tended to conceal them in casual
remarks or allusions. They did not want to create confusion among
people who couldn’t handle such thoughts. Rumi, for instance, states
somewhere that the Koran is the mirror of the states of mind of the
Prophet. What Rumi implies is that the Prophet’s personality, his
changing moods and his stronger and weaker moments, are reflected in
the Koran. Rumi’s son goes even further. In one of his books he
suggests that polygamy is permitted in the Koran because the Prophet
liked women. That was the reason he permitted his followers to marry
Does the Shi’i tradition allow you more freedom to develop your
thoughts on the humanness of the Koran?
It is well known that in Sunni Islam, the rationalist school of the
Mu’tazilites was badly defeated by the Ash’arites and their doctrine
that the Koran was eternal and uncreated. But in Shi’i Islam,
Mu’tazilism somehow continued its life and became the breeding
ground for a rich philosophical tradition. The Mu’tazilite doctrine
of the created Koran is almost undisputed among Shi’i theologians.
Today you see that Sunni reformers are coming closer to the Shi’i
position and embrace the doctrine of the created Koran. The Iranian
clergy, however, are reluctant to use the philosophical resources of
the Shi’i tradition to open new horizons to our religious
understanding. They have based their power on a conservative
understanding of religion and fear that they might lose everything
if they open the discussion on issues such as the nature of
What are the consequences of your views for contemporary Muslims
and the way they use the Koran as a moral guide?
A human view of the Koran makes it possible to distinguish between
the essential and the accidental aspects of religion. Some parts of
religion are historically and culturally determined and no longer
relevant today. That is the case, for instance, with the corporal
punishments prescribed in the Koran. If the Prophet had lived in
another cultural environment, those punishments would probably not
have been part of his message.
The task of Muslims today is to translate the essential message of
the Koran over time. It is like translating a proverb from one
language into another. You do not translate it literally. You find
another proverb which has the same spirit, the same content but
perhaps not the same wording. In Arabic you say: He is like someone
who carries dates to Basra. If you translate that into English you
say: He is carrying coal to Newcastle. A historical, human view of
the Koran allows us to do this. If you insist on the idea that the
Koran is the uncreated, eternal word of God that must be literally
applied, you get yourself into an un-resolvable dilemma.
Michel Hoebink works for the Arabic department of Radio
Netherlands World. The Expansion of the Prophetic Experience will be
published early 2008 by Brill. Leiden.
Box. Since the coming to power of president Ahmadinejad, it has
become increasingly difficult for Abdolkarim Soroush to work in
Iran. For that reason, he has accepted invitations to teach at
western universities such as Harvard and Princeton in the USA and
the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. In the past academic year he was
a guest lecturer at the Free University in Amsterdam and the
Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) in
Leiden, the Netherlands.